By PAUL WALDIE
Thursday, April 26, 2018
PARIS -- On the night Emmanuel Macron won France's presidential election, he strode toward a giant stage outside the Louvre museum as Beethoven's Ode to Joy wafted across the plaza toward thousands of cheering supporters waving French flags.
The musical choice was deliberate. The piece is the anthem of the European Union, and Mr. Macron was sending a signal to the world that after decades of declining influence in European and global affairs, France was back. And he has taken that message to heart. Since he was elected President on May 7, Mr. Macron has become the de facto leader of Europe, pushed France to the forefront of nearly every geopolitical issue, and forged a unique relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump that has irritated many at home, but won France more influence abroad.
The closeness of that relationship was on display this week in Washington, where Mr. Macron was honoured with the first state dinner of Mr. Trump's presidency and given a rare chance to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. During his threeday visit, Mr. Macron managed to soften Mr. Trump's rejection of the Iran nuclear deal by getting him to consider a broader agreement, and to win some commitment to maintain U.S. forces in Syria.
But he also took Mr. Trump to task, with a none-too-subtle critique of his protectionist agenda and climatechange skepticism.
Recent events require "more than ever the United States involvement as your role was decisive for creating and safeguarding this free world," Mr. Macron told Congress. "The United States is the one who invented this multilateralism. You are the one who has to help now to preserve and reinvent it." And he clearly regretted Mr. Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris accord on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and added: "Let us face it: There is no Planet B."
It is not clear how far any of this will go given Mr. Trump's unpredictability, but Mr. Macron has already won kudos in the White House for leading the missile strike on Syria this month in response to an alleged chemicalweapons attack by the Syrian army with Russia's help. He has also pleased European leaders by offering to mediate between the West, Russia and Iran on Syria and other issues.
To many in Europe, Mr. Macron has become a kind of "Trump whisperer," able to connect with the U.S. President by drawing on their similarities as businessmen and political novices who were not expected to get elected. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel on uncertain political ground, British Prime Minister Theresa May bogged down in Brexit and Italy still trying to piece together a government, Mr. Macron has become the voice of Europe in Washington and elsewhere.
"He is kind of the chief Trump handler for Europe and as long as the policy is co-ordinated, this is a winning game from a European perspective," said French economist Nicolas Véron, co-founder of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. "At this point, it looks like Macron is emphasizing the quality of his relationship with Trump in a way that serves European and not just French goals, on issues on which there is a European position such as Iran, climate change, Syria and tariffs."
It's not just in Washington where Mr. Macron is exerting his newfound importance. Just before his trip to the U.S. capital, he gave an impassioned address at the European Parliament, urging the EU to play a bigger role internationally and defend democracy in a dangerous climate of destructive populism. "I don't want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past," he told parliamentarians. "I want to belong to a generation that has decided forcefully to defend its democracy." Just before that intervention in Strasbourg, Mr. Macron extolled the virtues of the Canada-EU trade agreement while meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Paris. He announced a trip to Canada in June, right before the Group of Seven summit in Charlevoix, Que., where all eyes will be on him once again.
"He's really put France back on the map," French political analyst Pierre Haski said. "All of a sudden, Macron is making the French proud again, the country is respected again. Even on the European level, although he hasn't achieved much ... I think he has managed to bring a good majority of the French on the side of a pro-European feeling at the moment when it was pretty shaky before."
One big advantage for Mr. Macron has been the sudden turnaround in the French economy, which has given him more clout as he presses for increased EU economic integration. After years of sluggish growth and soaring unemployment, the economy has rebounded in stunning fashion.
France has enjoyed five straight quarters of GDP growth, a string of positive activity not seen in eight years, and the country's economy is expected to be among the best performers in Europe this year. Unemployment has fallen by 1.1 percentage points in the past year to 8.9 per cent, the biggest annual decline in more than 10 years and the lowest rate since 2009. The improved economy has also generated more tax revenue. That helped push the annual deficit to 2.6 per cent of GDP from 3.4 per cent, meaning that for the first time in nine years, France's deficit will fall below the EU's threshold of 3 per cent.
Not everything is going well for Mr. Macron. He faces increasing challenges at home and rising opposition to many of his domestic reforms. Mr. Macron's movement, known as La République En Marche!, won a massive majority in legislative elections last year and he has used that to launch a virtual transformation of the country. He has moved to reform France's notoriously restrictive labour laws and tax code.
Other proposed reforms include tougher immigration laws, increased privatization, new housing policies, overhauls to the education system and sweeping changes to elections and parliament. The pace of change has become overwhelming, and bogged down the National Assembly. It has also led to rising opposition.
Unions representing workers at France's state-owned railway operator, SNCF, have balked at what they say are plans to cut jobs and alter labour conditions. They have started 36 days of strikes over the next three months, wreaking havoc for commuters.
Workers at Air France have gone on strike as well, while healthcare staff and other public servants have opposed Mr. Macron's reforms. Students have shut down several university campuses to protest against proposed changes to postsecondary enrolment and how universities select students. The protests have turned violent at times, with students clashing with police and administrators.
"We are prepared to strike for months," said Barth Piron, a 21year old history student at the University of Paris in Nanterre who leads a revolt that has shut down the university west of Paris for nearly a month. Mr. Piron said Mr. Macron's reforms will send student tuition soaring and introduce a U.S.-style system of private universities in France, where postsecondary education costs as little as 200 annually ($312). "We are seeing that the government is attacking everybody in the population, so we are trying to put together all the struggles in the rail, in the hospitals, in universities, in high schools and fight all together," he said.
Even students such as Charlotte Velut-Peries, who voted for Mr. Macron and does not support the strike at Nanterre, have turned on the President. "I think he doesn't care about the students," said Ms. Velut-Peries, 22, who is studying law and worries that she could lose a year of course work because exams have been cancelled. She does not support the students' tactics, but sympathizes with their complaints. "The students are really angry, and now they block a lot of universities and we can't have the most important exams of the year. So it's a big problem because Macron doesn't hear the students.
We are paying for it," she said.
Mr. Macron has not won over opponents by calling protesting students lazy and telling striking railway workers to "stop taking people hostage." He's also never lived down the comment that he planned a "Jupiterian" presidency, leaving the impression he would rule from on high. Opposition politicians have called Mr.
Macron elitist and arrogant. Most polls show his popular support falling, and one poll released this week by Ipsos put his disapproval rate at 52 per cent.
"The opposition has managed to create this image of the president of the rich," Mr. Haski said.
For now, he said, about half the population cautiously backs Mr. Macron.
"People are impressed by the energy and the amount of reforming that Macron has been doing, but they are not sure it's good for them," he said. Mr. Haski added that while opposition is building, Mr. Macron has been able to press ahead with his reforms so far.
"I think Macron is actually winning the game at the moment, but it's still a tricky one," he said.
French President Emmanuel Macron, front, gestures to U.S. lawmakers as U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, back left, and House Speaker Paul Ryan clap prior to Mr. Macron's address to Congress in Washington on Wednesday.
PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS